Reason to Believe

Wiles, Maurice
SCM (1999)
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Anybody in the habit of prefixing the word "liberal" with "wishy-washy" will, if he is honest, never do so again after reading Maurice Wiles on belief. The title of Reason to Believe, as opposed to the general run of titles such as "Why Believe?" is significant because forensic reason is applied to the question in hand and the result is bleak for anyone who wants comfortable Christianity. Far nicer to be sure of the meaning of scripture and comfortable with the Creeds than to be left on this bleak and barren theological heath.

For the record, here is a summary of what he can extract, with a reasonably clear logic, from the Christian tradition:

  1. The belief that Jesus Christ is the focal point of God's dealing with the world, which found formal expression in the doctrine of the incarnation, implies in the first place that the figure of Jesus should be of central significance in determining the content of our beliefs about God, our understanding of how lives are meant to be lived, and the manner in which human lives can be transformed through faith in God.
  2. That same belief also carries a more general implication; it symbolizes the intimacy of God's involvement with the world.  If God has been seen as incarnate in a  human life, then the primary way to the knowledge of God and the basic form of any relationship with God must come not by turning our backs on the world but by penetrating more deeply into its fundamental reality.  It also carries with it important ethical implications of a positive nature about the value of the physical world.
  3. The story of Jesus' death plays a crucial; role in the impact that the figure of Jesus Christ has on our beliefs.  It implies that unlimited self-giving love is at the heart of the nature of God; and that neither wickedness nor suffering can ever take us outside the range of God's presence.  And in this aspect of the story too there are important ethical implications about the attitude to others which Christians are called to adopt.
  4. The story of Christ's resurrection (which as we have already seen, is really a part of the single story of death-and-resurrection) symbolizes the conviction that wickedness, suffering and death do not have the final word about human life. The resurrection story implies that (death as the end) is not true of Jesus Christ or of human life more generally.

It is difficult to know what more to say. The remorseless stripping away of layers of traditional Christian insulation against the harsh winds of uncertainty is difficult to take. I assent to much of Wiles' argument that much of Christian thought on Scripture and doctrine has become hopelessly stagnant, even sterile, but I find it difficult to be told in such stark terms what I already know.

This is, then, not a book for the faint hearted, nor for the Christian who is content with Sola Scriptura on the one hand or the Magisteriumg on the other, nor, for that matter, is it of any use to the comfortably nominal Christian who only reads what she agrees with, or doesn't read at all.

My only consolation is that Wiles forced me to see if there is any way I can use his minimally skeletal structure as a starting point for a new kind of building. I don't know yet; but I will work on it, as all liberals must.

Kevin Carey